Pastor Roger Barkley explores the account of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s wait for a child.
Advent 2 2018: How Long, Lord?
We’ve all had this experience.
I heard its deep rumble before I actually saw it, a black Ford F-250 pickup with jacked-up suspension all mounted on large, oversized chrome wheels.
A young man sat high in the driver’s seat, absorbed in the bump, bump, bump pounding out of his stereo’s woofers.
So, what was the first thing I thought (other than making a quick calculation of his weekly gasoline bill)?
Well, probably the same that most other people were thinking: this guy is over-compensating for something.
But if we’re honest, in one way or another, we’ve all tried to compensate for where we felt lacking, limited, languishing.
We overspend, overwork, name drop … countless ways to cover-up our weaknesses and fears.
But there’s a better way.
The term “negative capability” is your ability to stay in the place where you most acutely feel your limitations, doubts, and fears.
Our natural temptation is to flee those feelings, yet those are the same places where you are best able to receive the healing of Christ because whenever you confess inadequacy or inability, you empty a space for the Christ Child to be born within you.
That is precisely what Advent is about.
Both on a personal level, and as a society.
Nationally, we see a large block of our citizens choosing not to face the realities of the changing economy, the sins of racism, climate change, sexism … and instead dig in and blame immigrants, minorities, the LGBTQ communities, and the press for putting these uncomfortable issues of America front and center.
Rather than face our shortcomings as a country that proclaims liberty and justice for all, some find it easier to regress, just as on a personal level we find it easier to deny our shortcomings rather than confess them.
The discomfort of living in an “in-between state”, where we’ve faced our inadequacies and are waiting to replace them with something better, is challenging.
Psalm 79:5“How long, O Lord?” echoed throughout the long history of Israel as they awaited deliverance from invaders, oppressive kings, and corrupted clergy.
It was very much on the lips of the Hebrew people living under the thumb of Herod.
Herod was a brutal but savvy politician who, along with three of his brothers, inherited control of Israel from their father Herod the Great, who had built the magnificent Jerusalem temple, the seaside city of Caesarea and other colossal architectural projects.
To protect his power Herod assassinated anyone who threatened his power, even his wife and some of his sons.
Several Jewish uprisings had been brutally quashed leaving Herod and Rome vigilant with their spies and merciless with their suppression.
So, people waited for a savior, the one who had been promised for centuries.
The prophet Isaiah had foretold of a prince of peace who would be born from the family of David to a virgin.
Isaiah used poetry to evoke images of peace, like the lion and lamb lying side by side.
He said that the promised Messiah will have a special concern for the poor.
Isaiah 11:4 … with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
In the opening chapter of Luke’s gospel, we see how God is preparing to directly enter this world for the common, ordinary people, through common, ordinary people.
Zechariah was an ordinary priest.
Way back when the Hebrew leaders first divided the Promised Land by tribe,
it was envisioned that priests would not own land because they would be provided for in exchange for their priestly duties.
But now there were about 18,000 priests, and because of corruption, most of the wealth was in the hands of the clergy elite.
As a result, elderly Zechariah and his barren wife Elizabeth probably leased a small patch of land up in the hill country for growing their own food.
Not having children to support them in their old age, the couple lived with the shame and financial worries of being childless, which was assumed to be (a) divine curse for some past sin.
When it came time for his division of priests to serve at the Temple, Zechariah’s name was chosen by lot as the one to enter the temple to burn incense.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime honor as it was believed that God’s hand directed the process of drawing lots, which is why the angel Gabriel knew to wait for the old man in the Temple.
He delivered the shocking message that Elizabeth would become pregnant and deliver a son whom they would name John.
Unlike today, names weren’t chosen at the whim of parents, but identified their family and highlighted personal traits.
In this case, the expectation was that the baby would be named after his father,
but Gabriel instructs him to be called John, which means “the Lord has been gracious”.
The angel then says that John is to become a Nazirite – a man consecrated to God who remains pure by not cutting his hair or drinking fermented drinks.
The most famous Nazirite was Samson, the Old Testament judge who as long as he didn’t cut his hair had divine strength and wisdom to lead Israel to conquer their Philistine overlords.
Gabriel says about John,
Luke 1:17 “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
This phrase “the spirit and power of Elijah” refers to the ultimate mission of the prophet Elijah to prepare his young protégé Elisha to confront the corruption of Israel’s early kings.
Zechariah is so shocked that he questions how this could be, which prompts Gabriel to silence him until after the baby is born and properly named.
They did not need a priest with shaky faith who might go around doubting what God was doing at a time like this.
Despite her advanced years, Elizabeth did become pregnant, and during that time of waiting for her cousin, Mary, dropped by to announce that she, too, was expecting.
Because of her own miraculous conception, maybe Elizabeth was the one person who could accept Mary’s crazy story about being a virgin and yet pregnant by the Holy Spirit.
Maybe Mary, who was probably 13 or 14 years old at the time, poured out her fear that she’d be abandoned by her fiancé, rejected by her family, and maybe even stoned by the villagers of Nazareth.
So, this is the world of expectation for a messiah and of God’s mysterious actions in which John was raised.
Many were impatient in their waiting, insisting that John be the Messiah,
but he remembered the words of his father about the angel Gabriel’s instructions that he was to prepare the way for the Messiah.
John had a terrible agent.
Everyone knew the action was in Jerusalem … that’s where the crowds were and that is where people were likely to be interested in their faith.
But John got booked out in the boondocks … baptizing down in the hot valley of the Jordan River, miles from nowhere.
People were waiting for the Messiah Isaiah had promised would bring peace, but John said it was not enough to just passively wait.
Faithful waiting, he said, includes acting like the kind of people the Messiah wants us to become.
He said everyone should share their possessions with poor, tax collectors should stop collecting excess taxes, and soldiers should stop taking bribes.
It’s been 2,000 years since the Messiah came, and it turns out that he didn’t come to fix everything around us.
There are still despots, Pharisees-like churches, corrupt clergy, war and violence.
The Messiah comes to change us from the inside out to become people of peace both in our hearts and through our lives.
But as John warns, not everyone will be prepared … and so they’ll be left behind.
That sometimes gets interpreted as being left behind for heaven, but in the biblical context, it means left behind from the birth of the Messiah in our own hearts.
Each generation has its own challenge of waiting.
Today we get wafts of what could be a society of justice and equality, but also the acrid taste of old racism and arrogant smirks of the power elite.
We choose which to believe, which to follow, which to magnify in our life.
Matt Fitzgerald is a UCC minister in Chicago who used to work in a restaurant that didn’t open until 6 PM.
When he’d arrive at 4:30 to set up the bar, the restaurant was already busy preparing for 6 PM.
The cooks in the kitchen were chopping, roasting, dicing.
Tablecloths and silverware were being set out.
Everyone worked furiously … all attention focused on being ready at 6 PM when crowds would flood the place.
Each night, against all of this impatience, at exactly 5:55, a line cook named Steve would stop and walk very deliberately out of the kitchen with a huge sauté pan in his hand.
In the pan, there was a generous amount of olive oil and twelve garlic cloves rough-chopped and sizzling.
For a few moments, everyone was still while he walked slowly through the empty dining room filling the air not with dinner, but with a promise.
All these years later, what stands out for Matt is the memory of those few moments before the promise was realized, when the room was hushed and empty and the smell of roasting garlic filled the air.
We choose how to wait for the promised Messiah.
We can ignore our vulnerabilities … cover them up, pretend all is well, stay busy.
We can over-compensate for where we feel weak.
We can ignore the forces trying to turn back the tenuous progress we’ve made with LGBTQ rights, free access to the polls for all Americans, and environmental protection.
We can passively wait, expecting God to rescue us.
During the era of apartheid, one noted South African clergyman wrote about the final judgment.
He said, as we will stand before God, God will ask us, “Where are your scars?”
And we will look at ourselves and then back at God and tell him, “We have no scars.”
Then God will ask us, “Was there nothing worth fighting for?”
Will we sing, “Oh Come Let Us Ignore Him”?
The alternative is that we use Advent to prepare ourselves – finding joy and the sacred in this imperfect moment, and by sacrificing and caring for our world and all its people.
Prepare ourselves with silence and worship so that the holy will have a place in our hearts to dwell.
Remember the thirty-three Chilean miners who were trapped a half-mile underground for 69 days?
Many did not expect that they’d make it out alive, but they not only survived their ordeal but actually thrived and spiritually matured through the experience.
During the miners’ first seventeen days in darkness, with no signs from above, they decided to believe anyway that their gift of life was not to be forsaken and they would not give in to despair or suicide.
Instead, as they waited for rescue, they prayed and got to work, deciding that whatever remaining days they had would be sacred and lived with courage and honor.
They divided labor based on each person’s skills, as they looked out for the welfare of each member.
One, for instance, was a natural leader.
Another had some expertise in first aid and hygiene.
A third was chosen to be their chaplain.
It wasn’t a perfect mini-society, but they strived to be faithful to the life they had as they waited.
Each man was bound by his commitment to a higher authority than himself – both in their community and in their faith.
The power of Christ changed everything for them, a group of ordinary men trapped during what had started out as a very ordinary day of work.
When they emerged after their rescue, most of them spoke passionately about their changed lives, their deepened faith, the sacredness of each day, and their desire to help others.
God worked through an old priest to announce the coming of Christ, and the Son of God was soon born through an ordinary girl from an ordinary village.
Christ can change everything in us and can use us to do His work in our ordinary community.